Indian institutions, seen as vanguards of progressive thought and pluralistic debate, have come under attack once again from hoodlums allied to the ruling Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — in a pattern that first emerged last year with the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India. Then, as is happening now at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, students were at the forefront of protests, speaking out against an appointment that seemed to be based less on merit and more on political allegiance.
However, the state of affairs at JNU has taken an uglier turn, following the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges. While any anti-national activity is condemnable and punishable under extant laws in India, Kumar’s arrest has triggered one of the biggest student protests in years across India. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government came to power in 2014, concerns have increased over freedom of speech and the crushing of divergent viewpoints in the nation’s academic and cultural institutions.
Kumar himself has denied uttering any anti-India slogan or organising any anti-Indian activity, and no specific proof has emerged of his involvement. But self-appointed Hindu hardline guardians of the nation’s conscience — including lawyers and lawmakers — have taken it upon themselves to beat up journalists, lawyers, professors and the public at large outside court premises to warn against such “anti-national” activity. It’s a frightening and sad reflection on the vast democratic landscape of India — whose society has withstood many attempts at imposing extreme views — and will surely overcome this one as well.